Sunday, January 24, 2010

Politics, Identity and Sport: Review of Invictus

Place traditionally defines sports identification. People follow "my" team which lives in a place of habitation or memory.  Teams and team loyalty grow from place like towns, cities or countries and represent community and self.
The movie Invictus recounts an historical parable that exposes the complexity of this seemingly simple dynamic of identifying with and rooting for teams from your place. The Clint Eastwood directed  movie portrays the story of how President Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, nurtures a counterintuitive connection between an Afrikaaners rugby team, the Springboks, and the recently empowered black majority citizenry of South Africa at the end of the apartheid era.

Mandela had recently been elected the first black African President of South Africa after serving over 27 years in prison as an alleged "terrorist."
In that  same year South Africa  was finally allowed to compete in the world Rugby tournament after years of being denied entry because of apartheid and they also were hosting the tournament.

No one could envision the team, emblematic of the most rabid apartheid supporters, the Afrikaaners, becoming the symbol of a racially united South Africa; it makes no historical sense. The point of the game  was politics. The intractable problem remained that white and black Africans inhabited the same place, but fought each other over control of the place. For a hundred years the minority whites had dominated and fragmented the black tribal communities to maintain their hold on power. The place of South Africa meant very different things to Afrikaaners and black South Africans, and neither side was sure they could coexist in equality in that place.

Now Mandela was the first black African elected leader of South Africa. He desparately needed ways to create a common identity when both sides defined themselves as blood enemies. He had to  reassure the white communities to encourage them to remain, and he needed some means to generate a shared identity across the racial divide. As Americans know only too well, sport can divide, but also can unite. If the people love a game, in this case rugby, and appreciate it's strength, demands and glory, sometimes, following a team that plays the game with greatness can unite people across many divides. Yet South African rugby's segregation only replicated the segregation and domination in the community. In prison Mandela, like his fellow black countrymen, always rooted for whomever played the Springboks.

Mandela loved the poem Invictus, a paen to an "unconquerable soul" to overcome endless adversity. He read it constantly during his isolation and prison. He never forgot that he remained  "The master of my fate; The captain of my soul." What fascinates about the story is how Mandela, who loves sport, made a realpolitik decision to seek out the Springboks club and publically woo their captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon. He deployed the club and its quest for victory in  the world cup as a rallying point for a divided nation.

This was not easy, as the movie makes clear. His own party wanted to strip the Springboks of their status and beloved colors. Others complained that focusing upon sports sapped energy needed to devote to more serious structural issues. The Springboks remained true underdogs; in this connection, Mandela gave the captain Pienaar a hand written copy of Invictus.

Mandela risked and  invested significant political capital to  support  the team. His support blessed them as a "national" team, a representative of the nation itself, not a tribe, not a race, but a dream of a united South Africa. When he wore the Springbok colors, both whites and blacks scowled. The movie does not flinch from the calculation behind this decision as well as the touchy relation between him and the archetype Afrikaaners. It  tends to romanticize the transformative power of Mandela and the team, but it nonetheless illustrates how a winning and excellent team can evoke an emotional response from disparate folks, even once and future enemies.

The dream of being united together with a shared commitment and shared love of excellence can play out in following a team from your place playing a sport you mutually respect, enjoy and love. The identification can bring folks together in watching, rooting and enjoying the victory as well as suffering with the loss.

I vaguely understand the dense dynamics of why many of us identity so strongly with sport teams as extensions of our sense of place and community. Mandela's strategy and the team's success conjures this reality. It also emphasizes how people can view sports as a proxy for a we/they battle and feel superiority with each other when their team wins. Teams bring us together as a "we" but "we" need a "them" to compete against as well as a shared glory to identify with.

The team wins the world cup in what remains a high point for South African sport and mythos of national unity. South Africa struggles today to hold itself together in face of huge intractable misery. Yet the Springboks, their old colors, once symbols of apartheid, now national, are still revered, much more integrated and have regained the world rugby title.

In this case the politics of identity play out as politics of sport. The story of the Springboks helped heal a still divided and struggling country and remind them, if only for a moment, of the possibility of shared bonds and admiration of excellence of those who represent them on the world athletic stage.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Coaching Roulette Gets Stranger

College coaching roulette just got a lot more interesting and a lot sadder. Pete Carroll of USC, who should know better, suddenly ejected from a crashing USC and soft-landed as Coach and VP of the Seattle Seahawks. The landing was cushioned by a 3 million dollar salary increase and considerable discretion over player personnel--the team wants a "collaborative" relationship between Carroll and its as of yet unknown General Manager, yeah. Unfortunately the agreement did not entail the elimination of a pro-football draft in favor of allowing coaches to "recruit" college seniors to their teams.

Carroll's sudden career change drove USC to scroll madly through a list of potential coaches, including Mike Riley, another NFL refugee who had found incredible success in college ranks at Oregon State University. The school ended by plucking Lane Kiffin, exUSC assistant, ex-Oakland Raider coach, ex-Tennessee coach (and that's only in four years!!) as their new coach. 34 year old Kiffen left Tenessee after one year and in a heart beat, abandoning a "top ten job" for "the best job in America." (Has he talked to Nick Saban,  Mack Brown or Urban Meyer, sorry he and Meyer aren't speaking after he falsely accused Meyer of cheating). Kiffin's departure lead Tennessee into a whirlwind search where bodies flew around like in a twister and Derek Dooley football coach and AD at Louisiana Tech ended up finding himself falling out of the sky and  landing in Tennessee where he introduced the idea of building a program on "integrity" not a concept his predecessor worried about.

This whole process gets speeded up since national letter of intent day is three weeks away, and athletes who committed to one coach have not signed a letter and  are now swarmed by locusts from other schools. In typical fashion, Kiffin's head recruiter innocently answered questions of Tennessee recruits about how to come to USC! So what should be a thoughtful process involving athletic directors and Presidents occurs in days to forestall defections by prized recruits-so much for Presidential control and academic concern in coaching searches.

Two points strike me in this unfolding scenario. The first, I've talked about before, some coaches are much better suited to teach college kids than coach pros. Rick Pitino is another example to add to those I cited. College coaches not only teach, but they motivate; Carroll's unique competitive advantage has been his capacity to captivate, relate to and motivate 18-22 year old males. They flock to the program for its success, its glamor but also its unique brand of serious focus and fun accomplishment. The problem with motivators is that they grow very thin after a couple of years.

Motivating coaches elicit and demand intense emotional and cognitive commitment and a willingness to focus and sacrifice for the team and program. In college it works because they kids are young and only stay for four years--the intensity, team loyalty and emotional demands imposed by a coach resonate and stay alive as every year twenty-five percent of the team arrives new and enamored of the spell. But pros grow leery of too much "motivation." They must act on their cold self-interest given how short and dangerous their careers are. They invest in careers not teams and not coaches who can be fired in a micro-second or who will cut them even faster.

Carroll's style, like Pitino's, is uniquely suited to college; Nick Saban who motivates in a a more fierce but just as intense manner also asks and gains deep emotional and disciplined commitments; but could not expect the same of the pros he coached in Miami. I'm pretty sure this will not end well for Carroll and wish he saw more clearly the "fit" he once revelled between him and USC and college coaching. On the other hand, all coaches intensely compete. Being a competitor defines them; this focused fury and desire to win; to be the best; to extract from others their best; defines elite coaching. Carroll said I thought "I would be here forever," but "I can't pass up a competitive challenge." Behind his ageless California gold boy mystique lay an intense competitor he loved challenges, enjoyed winning (unlike many coaches) and absolutely abhorred losing. But he also looked for new challenges; maybe the moment had come; maybe the challenge beckoned and the pro failures still rankled him. Maybe 9 years of winning and one year of stumbling meant college had lost its magic. I'm not sure.

Second, Kiffin  reveals a more sordid reality of coaching life. Much like Brian Kelly who left Cincinnati on the eve of their most important bowl game for the Notre Dame job; he illustrates the raw ambition and untempered self-interest that can infect all coaching (heck it infects most major American corporations and CEOs). However, the whole enterprise of college athletics depends upon the claim that through athletics, Universities both create a unique form of human excellence, but in doing so help young men and women grow as people, not just athletes. Everything depends upon the coaches. Kiffin's actions teach another lesson, but maybe it is more real, but not one I think colleges want to teach--money and ambition trump loyalty and commitment.

The very men who preach sacrifice, team loyalty, mutual trust abandon the kids (and they are kids) on a moments notice to run to the next best job. So much for the moral power of coaches and college athletics.

(pictures courtesy of LATimes)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Domino's Pizza and the Reality of College Athletics

It was only a matter of time. College football and basketball have become commodities to be consumed by viewers on TV and for a privileged few to view at the stadiums. Big time University programs obsesses over "branding" and spend ten of thousands of dollars on refining their product; targeting their "demographics" (almost never students by the way since they buy so few tickets or products) and working with "sponsors" to give them product placement at games.

It was only a matter of time once sport becomes a commodity for an University to simply give up all pretension that college sports is anything other than a retail business. The University of Michigan, a proud academic institution, fallen on hard sports times, hired David Brandon the CEO of Domino's Pizza to run their athletic department.

Now the University can utilize all the techniques of selling pizza to sell their football and basketball (and hockey since this is Michigan) programs. Brandon actually did some fun commercials, and one thing Dominoes has attempted lately is running commercials that admit their short comings and turn this into challenges to improve quality.

Well he has his hands cut out at Michigan given the festering Rich Rodriguez football mess, the lingering scandals and mediocre basketball teams of recent years. And will somebody figure out how to beat Ohio State, I mean, come on! The once proud Michigan brand, much like Domino's, has fallen on hard times. Maybe a brand expert and pizza seller is what the program needed.

The other interesting issue is how this appointment highlights a harsh and enduring schism between the academic and athletic cultures. At most universities the academic hue (leaving aside Business and Engineering schools) leans liberal and open, as one would expect for institutions dedicated to experimentation and expanding the bounds of knowledge. Brandon's hard right political views and putative political ambitions simply highlight this divide, after all this is the school where Bo Schlembechler coached and presided, but this cultural divide represents one more of the many divides across this shot gun wedding of academics and athletics. I must admit I'm flummoxed by having a supporter of teaching creationism as a senior administrator at a major academic bastion like Michigan.

To be fair, appointing a CEO who is taking an 80 percent salary cut and is doing the job out of love and passion, illuminates another trend. A number of college presidents have grown increasingly disenchanted with the professional pool of athletic directors and the career path many of them follow. The path itself is fraught with multiple role demands from fund raising, to hiring coaches, to managing complex physical plants to being a public spokesperson to managing crisis to actually paying attention to the academic welfare of student athletes. The job, like the university presidency, has become almost impossible. Many university presidents are looking outside the traditional pool of candidates, sometimes it works, sometimes it fails.

One of Brandon's true attractions is that his a a "Michigan man." This means a Bo Schlembechler clone, sort of. He is demanding, hires well and has a finely tuned sense of the integrity and trusteeship of the University (he served a a University trustee), This makes the appointment intriguing because it brings in an outsider who is also an insider. Michigan has gone this route before when President Lee Bollinger hired real estate mogul Bill Martin to serve as AD. Brandon's tenure will be engrossing as a portent of the future, a fascinating experiment and an ironic and sad commentary upon the state of big time college sports.

pictures courtesy of &and Domino's Pizza

Monday, January 11, 2010

Team Chemistry II

Team chemistry exists in the relations among players and between players and coaches. It depends upon mutual understanding of the common expectations of how players treat each other, how they relate to their own skill and position and how they relate to wins and losses.

Chemistry like culture does not happen by accident. Actually it will emerge by accident if no one is working to create one. Every team develops a culture, the question is whether the leaders have a vision of what the culture should be and work to create and sustain it.

Cultures work best when they are hidden and literally become "the way we do things around here." Culture and chemistry become "taken for granted." This enables the loose and fun behavior that permits players to excel and "flow" with their performance. They create bonds of trust, expectation and relations that endure under stress. On the dark side, a culture can encourage a one for one attitude or players driving for their own gratification or next contract also can be taken for granted. Whatever bonds that exist are brittle and break quickly under stress.

Chemistry works best when the players exhibit and enforce it through peer pressure. The kangaroo courts many teams have with fines and performance reviews can be meaningless, ordeals or ways to build comraderie and expectations. Culture and chemistry manifest in daily rituals from how people practice to how they celebrate or welcome back to the bench a successful or failed player. These rituals embody and reinforce the expectations of how to treat each other. This is one way players like Griffey excel in building and sustaining chemistry whether they manage the courts or set the tone for how players are greeted when they come to the bench. Chemistry depends heavily upon key players who emanate contagion. If strong personalities do not dominate the emotional tenor and expectations, other lesser or more selfish personalities will fill the void. It is much easier to complain, blame and be egoistic when under stress than to keep pushing ahd helping and setting high examples even when it does not seem to be paying off.

I mentioned chemistry and resilience of team bonds in the first entry on team chemistry. The point of the game here is that stress and adversity reveal the true culture and chemistry. Stress or adversity serve as catalysts that can break bonds and fragment teams. One of my mentors always emphasizes that you earn trust and confidence from your teammates. Being a teammate must be learned, it involves a separate role and identity that reinforces and focuses talent and energy. Facing adversity teammates support and reinforce each others best selves. You can build a winner with a fractured chemistry or lackadaisical culture. Winning overcomes a lot of selfishness; but when things fall apart, a winning but selfish culture fractures and fails to recover under pounding of adversity. Winners are one thing; champions are another. Championship teams absolutely depend upon strong and positive team chemistry and culture.

Beyond the informal and daily need for peers and team leaders, the coaches and
general managers must lead to create a culture. The leaders must have a vision of the belief system and norms of performance they expect. This is critical. General managers and coaches must demonstrate  this in whom they hire and draft. Coaches must act upon this in their hiring and above all in their firing, benching or trading. Sparky Anderson's famous "my way or the highway" summarizes it all.

For the Mariner's last year the watershed moment was actually when they traded Yuniesky Betancourt, their talented shortstop, who demonstrated for three years an utter unwillingness to learn, adapt or play in a way to enhanced the team.

Coaches and leaders must set boundaries; if they preach a set of values and expectations but do not act upon them, they are toast. The culture and expectations become meaningless jokes. When a coach "loses a team," this is what happens. They no longer listen or believe him. He cannot motivate them and they will not sacrifice their own interests to increase team success. Partially this occurs if players do what the coach asks and the team fails; but  as often, players see the coach will not make the hard decisions to bench or send down or set boundaries for prima donnas or underperformers.  Without high expectations of fair and consistent treatment in light of announced expectations, it all falls apart. Coaches must set boundaries and challenge players with real consequences good and bad for living up to or failing team norms. If coaches don't, chemistry blows up and performance implodes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Team Chemistry

Coaches talk about it; media obsesses about it; quantoids deny it. Team culture and "chemistry" can matter profoundly to the quality of performance of a team. I've been thinking about this as I watch my Mariner's make two very interesting decisions that will affect the chemistry of the team. They retained Ken Griffey, Jr., despite his athletic limitations, because of his importance to mentoring younger players and building a mature yet loose commitment to winning. At the same time they traded for Milton Bradley a  talented and troubled player notorious for disrupting club houses. Alot is riding upon the Mariner's ability to create a culture where Griffey's ideals and norms dominate and Bradley has a chance to fit in and flourish.

Chemistry and culture matter in sports because as social psychology regularly proves human beings change in relation to the norms of the group they inhabit. Much as I believe in the value and centrality of human integrity, most persons rise or sink to the norms, emotional affect and practices of people they live around. The reasons range from social effect of contagion where one person's emotions can alter people around them to the neurobiological impact of mirror neurons where the emotions nearby people imprint us to the well documented phenomena that most people find their self-esteem influenced by attitude of peers. This makes establishing  internalized and peer enforced expectations of treatment and performance central to enhancing the aggregate performance of players.

"Chemistry" presents a good metaphor because it suggests that players react to each other. Chemistry depends upon relations and reactions can, break or diffuse bonds among team members. Reactions can explode, go passive or create dynamic equilibriums. Reactions can disrupt and disorganize a system or bring it coherence and new levels. Relations altered by chemistry can form strong or negative bond, push people apart or bring them together into coherent entities. We've all experienced teams that fall apart with players recriminating and blaming each other; teams that  lose heart, go inert and players "go through the motions." We've also experienced teams where players challenge each other to perform to their highest levels; where struggling or injured players  get help and support from each other; where team bonds and relations help players accept roles and perform with competence while supporting and rooting for their starting teammates even as they compete with them.

I think chemistry integrates several aspects of a team culture. First, individuals understand and accept the need to subordinate their own ego demands to the concept of winning together as a team. This acceptance means that they are willing to learn from coaches and from each other, not always the case with experienced professionals. At its rawest level, this requires players to accept when they do not start or get the position they wish, but to still believe they can compete and be ready to contribute. These relations prevail upon players to react to each other as professionals and set aside personal likes and dislikes.

Second players agree to compete hard to develop their skills, but do so in ways to complement what the teams needs to win. This may involve learning to bunt or push a runner over or in other sports block a new way or pass an extra pass to get a teammate an open shot.  Players devote time to expand their competence to enable other team members to flourish, not just to get their maximum statistics or rewards. Chemistry means players understand one aspect of their contributions is to help each other and complement each other, not exist in splendid statistical isolation.

Third, players push and support each other to excel. They compete and cooperate, one of the great paradoxes of team membership. When one player struggles, this poses a chance for another to excel and perhaps replace a player. But it also invites players to support each other to overcome the struggles, to return from an injury or a slump. This paradox flows through sport and life and takes a delicated but vital balance that teammates provide for each other. It helps players feel supported, wanted and "at home" on a team.

Lastly good chemistry builds resilience into a team. No plan survives contact with reality. The best put together teams encounter injuries, accidents, off field distractions and tragedies. They go through slumps and sometimes fall apart or have "one of those days" where nothing goes right. Emotional resilience involves the capacity for members of a team to sustain each other through the insults of time and season. It means that players do not go rogue or solo or give up under the stress of losing or injury. This resilience enables players to still believe in themselves and their talents and to bounce back from setbacks. This resilience depends heavily upon the leadership and example of emotional leaders and experienced players or coaches who have lived through it and can offer the hope that this will end.

When chemistry works the belief system and emotional relations are internalized and embedded in daily relations. Players lose their self-consciousness and "flow" in their actions and relations. These unself-conscious attitudes enable them to play loose and enjoy the "play" of their sport. The loose play helps them play up to their potential and provides the matrix for resilience and support and satisfaction at their work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Coaches Imploding

I've been discussing college football coaches in the last several blogs because they exemplify all the issues surrounding intercollegiate athletics, both good and bad. The validity of the whole enterprise as an educational endeavor depends upon the quality of the coach. The implosion of a number of prominent college coaches this year gives me pause to think about the stresses and pressures  they experience.

Mike Leach of Texas Tech, one of the true characters and offensive minds of college football coaching, was fired this week. Allegedly he consigned a player who had suffered a concussion (another stalwart danger that never goes away in football) to enforced darkness in a small room (sounds like a form of torture, but it is alleged). Mike Locksley, coach of New Mexico, assaulted an assistant coach early in the season, one of several alleged and clear incidents of coach on coach violence of the last two years. Most interesting of all, Urban Meyer, the hard driving and absurdly successful coach of Florida, announced his retirement from coaching a week before the Sugar Bowl. He had suffered from increasingly serious stress and heart related issues. He abjured his "self-destructive behavior" and  declared he needed to devote time to his "faith and family."  Two days later he joylessly announced he would instead take a leave of absence after meeting with his players.

Coaches compete. They compete relentlessly to recruit, coach, win. They compete for jobs, salary, status and kids. Most coaches utterly and intensely hate to lose; few enjoy the fruits of victory very long. (Bill Bellichek of the Patriots embodies the ultimate joylessness of modern coaching) One game gone;  the next morning they are working on tape for the next. One season end; they are on the road recruiting. College coaching grinds on and never ends. Coaches compete and depend for their jobs and their glory upon wins, upon recruiting successes, upon outsmarting their opposite numbers.

All these rewards feel external. Winning & competing depend upon external validation. Coaches find it very difficult to find a place of stability and peace. Most football coaches teach their players to play with "controlled rage." Football's violence seeps into the bones of players and flows from the pores of coaches. They model the controlled rage for their players. That simmering anger, that drive to win and prove oneself, the controlled and focused force exists in most of the coaches themselves. Players read it, respond to it and understand the emotional language.

Competition, controlled rage, utter dependence upon external validation are recipes for disasters for human beings, players and coaches. Most coaches constantly exhort their kids to "play within themselves' and to "control what they can control," their own effort, focus and emotions. Coaches need to follow their own advice because if they take it too seriously, if they rely upon external world for validation, they will be vulnerable to the implosions we see on a regular basis in coaching. They will suffer the stress, the violent eruptions and heart and impairments that flow from it. They'll respond with obsessive behavior--eating, tape watching, working out, excessive control, hyper vigilance.

Young coaches have to learn to channel that anger and rage and desire to win and be the best; they can share it with their athletes, but to survive in the long run, they need more. Many coaches discover or turn to faith as a source to provide an awareness that "it's just a game" is really true. Their faith provides a way of understanding and  and getting distance from  the tectonic stresses on college coaches.

If they are lucky their family remains intact and family can provide the same, but coaching brutalizes family life with long hours away and emotional preoccupation. If they can keep their family together, it provides another space to renew and remember that worth and value flows from deeper values and not "just a game." Finally, the very best coaches renew themselves daily in coaching not with their competing and recruiting and countless demands to "win" but rather by connecting with their players and fellow coaches. They experience the abiding satisfaction of helping young people grow into adulthood and achieve excellence and develop the dimensions of life that can help them excel later in life. This reciprocal relation of mutual growth eludes too many coaches, but when they discover it and keep it intact, they discover a reservoir for sanity.

And yet, even this relation can become a source of destruction for the coach. Someone as obsessively controlling as Meyer needs to learn how to hold others accountable. As a perfectionist he can't let go but needs to for others sake. If a coach or any leader holds themselves accoutnable for everything and everyone, they bear a burden that cannot be borne and take away the opportunity for the assistants and players to grow. Learning how to care and share responsibility  keeps balance and health. It helps insulate oneself form the self destroying pressures of leading. At the same time his connection to his players may have motived his sudden turn around which may not be a  good thing for Meyer or his family.

Coaches don't have to implode, but their work conditions invite it. Meyer should listen to himself; this is about family, faith and perspective, not coaching.